Jay Juster graduated cum laude from USC in 2014 with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Critical Approaches to Leadership. He served as Inductor on E-board for Phi Sigma Kappa his junior year and has a passion for leadership. Not one to gather moss, upon graduating Juster donated all his earthly possessions that wouldn’t fit in his car and traveled across America, ending up on the other side of the country. Check out some of his entrepreneurial advice at jaymaxjuster.com.
In 1971, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo placed an advertisement in the local Palo Alto newspaper calling for volunteers in an experiment analyzing the psychological consequences of living inside a prison. Of the 70 applicants that originally responded, 24 healthy, intelligent, college males were chosen to participate and then arbitrarily divided into either the inmate or guard group depending on the flip of a coin. Although Zimbardo originally planned for the study to last two weeks, other researchers were so appalled by the combination of brutal punishments and complete obedience demonstrated by the guards and inmates respectively that they forced Zimbardo to abandon the experiment after only six days. This quick devolution of people into ruthless authoritarians mirrored the Biblical story of Lucifer, which led Zimbardo to label this psychological principle “The Lucifer Effect.” This Stanford Prison Experiment brings into question whether it is human nature’s default to be moral and virtuous or obedient to authority, even if it’s completely contrived. It also begs the question to what extent can prisons organize themselves in order to mitigate the dangers of this psychological phenomenon or perhaps prevent it from the outset. Although people may seem to naturally commit unspeakable acts of brutality against inmates when assigned the role of prison guard, contemporary prisons successfully combat this tendency through non-traditional organizations and structures, clearly defined roles for the guards, and definite boundaries restricting a guard’s ability to punish inmates.
The environment that Zimbardo created in his Stanford Prison Experiment, not necessarily human nature, acts as the main impetus for the inhuman treatment of the prisoners. The entire study took place in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department. Classrooms were transformed into cells, the connecting corridor became “The Yard,” where prisoners were often lined up and yelled at, and the two foot by two foot janitor’s closet was used for solitary confinement. The students who had only casually responded to the newspaper ad were then basically coerced into participating in the experiment. Real officers driving real police cars, who were in on the experiment, arrived at each subject’s house and proceeded to have the designated inmates handcuffed, read their Miranda Rights, and then taken to a holding cell where they filled out the standard paper work, and had their finger prints put on file. Then, they were taken to the actual cell where they were stripped naked, sprayed with delousing water from a hose, given buzz cuts, given only a stocking cap and white dress with a number printed on it to wear, cuffed together at the feet, and stuffed into a small cell with two other inmates. Many of these procedures do not represent normal American prison protocol. Instead, Zimbardo intentionally exaggerated the conditions in order to “humiliate prisoners… [make them] feel emasculated… remind prisoners of the oppressiveness of their environment… minimize each person’s individuality… [and get] people to begin complying with arbitrary, coercive rules of the institution” (prisonexp.org, 10). As a result of this oppressive regime, which included robbing the inmates of their names and calling them only by the number printed on their dresses, the inmates completely rebelled as soon as the second morning. The guards, forced to respond on their own to this ‘security breach,’ retaliated by breaking into each cell, stripping every inmate naked, placing the ringleaders into solitary confinement one-by-one, and beginning a harsh regimen of harassment and intimidation.
The worst atrocities, psychologically and physically, started after guards segregated the prisoners into “good” cells and “bad” cells and then randomly mixed inmates together. Zimbardo notes, “By dividing and conquering in this way, guards promote aggression among inmates, thereby deflecting it from themselves… Suddenly, it was no longer just an experiment… Instead, the guards saw the prisoners as troublemakers who were out to get them… In response… the guards began stepping up their control, surveillance, and aggression” (prisonexp.org, 20). With this division, the inmates, already dehumanized and emasculated through the de-naming process and being forced to wear dresses, respectively, started to suffer emotionally as their identity disintegrated. At this point, Prisoner #812 reported feeling “totally helpless,” and Prisoner #819 completely broke down sobbing when the other inmates shouted “#819 is bad” in unison (prisonexp.org, 28 and 31). Interestingly, however, Prisoner #819 completely stopped crying after Dr. Zimbardo informed him that he was not in a real prison and that all of the events were only part of a psychology experiment. In other words, as soon as Prisoner #819 discovered a path that led to freedom, the pain and especially its apparent inescapability dissipated. This feeling of inescapability is due to the established power hierarchy, where inmates are permanently at the mercy of the whims of the guards. Prisoners have absolutely no control. Only the guards and the organizational structure of the prison itself can affect how this dynamic plays out. The rest of the participant prisoners, therefore, still needed to cope with the extreme prison conditions.
Despite the responsibility that authorities need to take in order to overcome the easy progression of a normal prison into an oppressive environment, the current American prison system perpetuates conditions that almost parallel those found in Zimbardo’s experiment and fail to protect its inmates. A natural consequence of this adverse environment is that in the past twelve years (2000-2012), there have been as many attempts to escape from Florida prisons as there have been in the preceding twenty-five years (1975-2000) (dc.state.fl.us), which may or may not represent a national trend. A large part of the problem is the growing American dependence on solitary confinement, isolating the prisoner for 22 hours or more and for one or more days, as a form of punishment (aclu.org). According to national statistics, 40% more inmates got sentenced to solitary confinement in 2000 than they did in 1995 and there are now about 200% more since the turn of the millennium (solitarywatch.com). Additionally, the average sentence in solitary, when administered as a severe punishment, ranges from 18 months to 6.8 years depending on the state (Ibid). Virtually every psychiatrist agrees that “It’s a standard psychiatric concept; if you put people in isolation, they will go insane” (Ibid). As prisoners gradually lose their independence and abandon all attempts at resistance, their increasing levels of compliance encourage the prison guards to remove more freedoms and make conditions worse. Prisoners typically start in a normal state of solitary confinement, but if they continue to misbehave and rebel like Zimbardo’s inmates, then they get a variety of extra punishments ranging from temporary starvation to beatings. These escalating punishments psychologically condition the prisoner into a state of powerlessness and hopelessness. He eventually realizes that there is no pride in resistance. No one else can witness his refusal to submit to authority. Therefore, he learns to simply accept his horrible fate, isolated and alone, without any hope of escape apart from the mercy of the guards. As the following testimony of this prisoner indicates, the practice of solitary wholly fails to rehabilitate: “I don’t think I will be a thief when I am released. No, I am not rehabilitated either. It is just that I no longer think of becoming wealthy or stealing. I now only think of killing — killing those who have beaten me and treated me as if I were a dog” (prisonexp.org, 40).
The primary catalysts for these atrocities in American prisoners are both the overall attitude that the role of a prison in to punish rather than rehabilitate and the gradual process of inmate dehumanization. On the one hand, making prison a more severe sanction increases its effectiveness as a deterrent psychologically (Andenaes, 1968). Consequently, when potential criminals contemplate engaging in some unlawful activity, there exists a positive correlation between the severity of the punishment with the probability that they will not commit that crime. The power of this deterrent, however, slowly fades over time if the general rates of imprisonment continue to climb and the stigmatizing effect of living in prison dissipates (Nagin, 1998). Additionally, there is a large body of literature supporting the idea that prisons, especially in America, are actually counter-productive and act as “Schools of Crime” (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990). The crux of this theory relies on what Bukstel and Kilmann view as an “overwhelming positive reinforcement” by the surrounding inmates to remain bitter, anti-social, and hostile to everyone else, including separate inmates. The US unwittingly encourages this type of mentality by separating prisoners according to their ethnicity or allowing prisoners to do so themselves. These boundaries greatly enhance conflict, as seen in Zimbardo’s experiment when the “bad” prisoners were separated from the “good” ones. They also have a negative impact on the rates of recidivism found in prisoners across the nation. Thus, the American prison system needs a complete transformation spanning not only the intrinsic structure of the organization and the various mentalities justifying it, but the expectations placed on the guards in terms of how they interact with and treat the inmates, as well.
A possible solution to this nation-wide problem can be seen through the example set by McKean prison, the federal institution of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Since McKean opened in 1989 there have been no homicides, no escapes, no sexual assaults, and no suicides. This staggering statistic relates to its average annual cost of about $6,000 per inmate less than the overall federal average, which is $21,006 for minimum security, $25,378 for low security, $26,247 for medium security and $33,930 for maximum security prisons (Worth, urban.org). The primary reason for this reduction in expense is Warden Dennis Luther’s attitude toward the prisoners: “The root of Luther’s approach is an unconditional respect for the inmates as people.” Luther compiled the different aspects of this respect into a list of twenty-eight beliefs, the first two of which are that “inmates are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment” and “correctional workers have a responsibility to ensure that inmates are returned to the community no more angry or hostile than when they were committed” (Ibid, emphasis added). These two beliefs are intricately connected. They both outline the basic duties of the prison guard and clarify that the guard’s responsibility is to rehabilitate the prisoner, rather than punish him. Consequently, the prison overall spends less money on weapons (which must be replaced after being used to injure or control prisoners), guard labor rates (since less guards are needed and the turnover rate is lower), and measures to ensure inmates don’t run away (some prisons keep 5,000 volt fences spanning the parameter of the property running 24/7). Thus, the broader organization and how the organization traditionally views its prisoners largely determines how much is invested to counter-act troublesome prisoners both monetarily and through physical or psychological force from the guards. When an organization makes it clear that the guards are expected to treat the inmates with respect, the entire environment shifts from one seeking to punish bad behavior to one that rewards good behavior in the context of a relationship of mutual respect between the guard and the inmate.
Indeed, another differentiating feature of Luther’s prison is a system of incentives that gives exceptional rewards for good behavior. When inmates are well-behaved, Luther grants access to televisions and phone rooms at night, allows inmates to attend supervised picnics, and eventually permits them to live in an “honor unit.” As a result, many of the inmates independently desire to become rehabilitated, regaining their place as a fully active member of society. Although this process sounds similar to the separation that occurred in Zimbardo’s experiment, the major difference is the underlying attitude of the prisoners. Because of McKean’s rehabilitative environment, the “School of Crime” norm found in most prisons is flipped. Instead, prisons act much more like a traditional school. Whereas criminals enjoy being recognized for their bravery, brutality, and cleverness, students enjoy being recognized for their intelligence, hard work, and accomplishments. This crucial difference in both individual focus and overall attitude is what makes this “honor unit” technique so effective. The results also speak for themselves. According to Worth, a full 47% of inmates are enrolled in classes, one of the highest of the federal system, and many, while in prison, earn professional credentials that help them get a job upon release from McKean.
This system of incentives, in contrast to a system of disincentives, drastically reduces prisoners’ feelings of hopelessness for the future. Most prisons demand a strict code of conduct and will typically punish violations of this code very harshly, with solitary confinement representing the most cruel penalty apart from death. In order to maintain both a system that contains multiple levels of punishment and the psychological health of inmates, many alternative prisons rely on a type of isolation where prisoners are alone but not confined to a small space. Multiple studies have confirmed that isolating a prisoner in a relatively open space as a result of extremely poor behavior avoids many of the psychological repercussions found in standard prisons (Cayley, 1998). The primary justification for this is the prisoner’s clear acknowledgement that he misbehaved and that the punishment is deserved. Consequently, alternative prisons tend to make their expectations of prisoner behavior abundantly clear. With these clear expectations come clear regulations and an environment that fosters understanding and personal accountability instead of an atmosphere of fear and authoritarian control.
Ultimately, the evidence concludes that people do not intrinsically desire to do harm to inmates when assigned the role of guard. The defining characteristics that drove people to commit the horrendous acts found in Zimbardo’s experiment were the lack of both expectations and regulations for the guard-inmate relationship, the complete obedience that the prisoners demonstrated due to their instilled sense of hopelessness, and the overall mentality that prison is a place for punishment. Because Zimbardo’s guards were simply normal people thrown into the role due to their fleeting interest in volunteering for a vague study, their lack of formal training and exaggerated notions of how real guards actually treat inmates created a brutal environment that was perpetuated by the other ignorant guards. The inmates, faced with a hopeless situation consisting of unconditional punishment and degradation, were incapable of coping with these harsh penalties. As a result, they had the choice to either resign to their incredibly painful fate or go insane. This situation unfortunately represents the common scenario in most American prisons, also. The extreme side effects of this prison environment range from prisoners constantly attempting to assault others to prisoners having mental breakdowns due to the unbearable conditions. In either case, rehabilitation appears impossible. Innovative and unique alternative models, however, have proven that there does exist another, more effective way to deal with prisoners and help them rehabilitate into law-abiding citizens. This rehabilitative, rather than punitive, strategy involves clearly defined guidelines for how guards treat inmates and a new organizational mentality that emphasizes rehabilitation as the goal of prison. If America could embrace this alternative perspective, then it would revolutionize the current prison system, reduce the cost for every individual inmate, and save the prisoners irreparable psychological harm. Additionally, the guards would never be given the opportunity to fall victim to the Lucifer Effect because the conditions simply would not allow for that kind of behavior.
1) The American Bar Association. Standards on Treatment of Prisoners. http://www.Americanbar.org/publications/criminal_justice_section_archive/crimjust_standards_treatmentprisoners.html#23-1.1
2) Andenaes, J. (1968). Does punishment deter crime? Criminal Law Quarterly, 11, 76-93. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/e199912.htm
3) Cayley, D. (1998). Effects of prison: The crisis in crime and punishment and the search for alternatives. Toronto, ON.: House of Anansi Press Limited. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/e199912.htm
4) dc.state.fl.us. Tucker, Kenneth. 2009-2010 Agency Statistics. http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/annual/0910/stats/im_escapes.html.
5) Gendreau, Goggin and Cullen. Paul, Claire and Francis. Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, University of New Brunswick, Department of Criminal Justic, University of CincinnatiThe effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/gendreau.pdf
6) Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1998). The past and future of U.S. prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist.
7) Pearson. Criminal Justice Today by Dr. Frank Schmalleger. Chapter 13. Prisons and Jails
8) October 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/warren142/chapter13-2834025
9) Prisonexp.org. Stanford Prison Experiment. A simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University.
10) Solitarywatch.com. Rodriguez, Sal. Fact Sheet. News from a nation in lockdown: Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/fact-sheet-psychological-effects-final.pdf
11) Worth, Robert. A model Prison. November 1995. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95nov/prisons/prisons.htm.